Murder most foul

Yet another savage outcome of human-elephant conflict in Kerala must propel us to get our act together. If not, animals will perish along with the environment

The murder of a pregnant elephant, which died in the Velliyar river in Kerala’s Mannarkkad forest division in Palakkad district on May 27, must rank among the cruellest killings of animals ever. According to the post-mortem report, the immediate cause of her death was drowning. Before that, she could not eat or drink for nearly 14 days following an explosion in her mouth that inflicted major, incapacitating wounds in the oral cavity. “This”, the report reads, “resulted in excruciating pain and distress in the region and prevented the animal from taking food and water for nearly two weeks. Severe debility and weakness, in turn, resulted in a final collapse in water that led to drowning.”

According to Kumar Chellappan’s report in The Pioneer of June 6, the elephant was injured as she tried to eat a coconut that had been stuffed with explosives to kill wild boars that ate up crops. The report further stated that the police had arrested P Wilson, a tapper in a rubber plantation, the previous day and were looking for the plantation’s owners, Abdul Kareem and his son Riyazuddin, and had charged all three of them under various sections of the Kerala Forest Act and the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Wilson has reportedly admitted that he had filled a coconut with explosives and placed it in the plantation to kill wild boars that regularly devoured/destroyed crops. According to reports, Wilson, following interrogation, had taken police and forest department officials to a shed inside the plantation, where the explosives had been worked on, and some remnants were found. In the event, instead of a wild boar, an elephant bit into the fruit.

A word of caution. Before bursting into a round of applause for the police, one should remember that the accused are yet to be convicted and adequately sentenced. Since Indian elephants (Elephas maximus) feature in Part I (mammals), Schedule I, of the Wildlife Protection Act, their hunting “in a sanctuary or a national park” can lead to imprisonment of up to seven years and a “fine which shall not be less than ten thousand rupees.”

The award of the maximum punishment will depend on successful prosecution in courts, which, in turn, would depend on convincingly marshalling and weaving evidence into unfolding arguments. This implies thorough investigation and reflection thereon. This aspect needs to be emphasised as the Kerala Government’s and local bodies’ record in protecting animals and bringing their murderers and tormentors to book is by no means exemplary. In some cases, they are guilty of condoning or even sanctioning killing.

In fact, one wonders whether the Kerala Government would have ordered an investigation into the present case and made the kind of serious efforts it has to arrest the culprits, had the media not taken it up so strongly and waves of shock and anger not swept the country. Another female elephant had died in April in the Pathanapuram forest range area under Punalur division in Kollam district after trying to eat an explosive-laden fruit. It was, according to forest officers, treated adequately but in vain. The incident did not find any coverage in the national media until anger exploded over the pregnant elephant’s murder and was only mentioned in passing in a couple of reports even after that. An investigation has been ordered but nothing like the efforts made following the death of the pregnant elephant has been launched.

Poaching is rampant in the area. According to a report by Vinod Mathew in The Print (datelined June 5), 24 wild elephants have died of unnatural causes like poaching in the last five years in Kerala. If the Government was serious about stamping out the menace, it would have made recognisably determined efforts to bring the guilty to book in every case of elephant killing like the one in April. Besides, a telling commentary on the state of affairs in Kerala is the almost casual mention in several post-Palakkad death media reports that the explosive-laden coconut that killed the elephant was targetted at wild boars destroying crops.

Two points need to be made here. First, such savage killing of no animal can be justified. Second, the Kerala Government had permitted the killing of wild boars in May. The Print report cited above quotes Dr Asha Thomas, Additional Chief Secretary, Forest and Wildlife, Kerala Government, as saying, “There have been periodic demands from farmers that they be allowed to protect their crop and given the right to shoot wild boars. About a month ago, a Government order was issued that allowed the shooting of wild boars, subject to a number of clauses.” The clauses, according to her, included “certification by the local authorities that an area is suffering crop loss on account of sustained attack by wild boars and so on.” She added, “And once the permission is granted, only someone from an empanelled group of licenced firearm owners would be allowed to shoot. So far we have had only one such case.”

P Wilson, who allegedly stuffed explosives in the coconut that killed the pregnant elephant, as well as the two other accused in the case, Abdul Kareem and Riyazuddin, had, if the allegations against them are correct, either not heard about the conditions governing the killing of wild boars or thought these could be ignored with impunity. One needs hardly to be surprised if the latter has been the case. According to a report in the NDTV (June 5) by Sneha Mary Koshy (edited by Deepshikha Ghosh), villagers in the region often used firecrackers or explosives stuffed in food to protect their fields from wild animals like boar and the horrific practice had been widely condemned. Obviously, however, such condemnation had not led to deterrent punishments of the kind that would have halted the three accused in their tracks.

It is certainly important to protect crops. The need to do so, however, can also be cited as an excuse. A report by Adam Withnall in The Independent of the United Kingdom datelined June 5 quotes Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of the NGO Wildlife SOS, as saying that farmers continued to use “crude and inhumane” methods like fruit bombs “on the pretext of crop protection… despite crop compensation schemes available from the forest department”. According to a report by Shaji Phillips in The Indian Express of June 6, the Mannarkkad range forest officer, Ashique Ali U, in charge of probing the Palakkad killing case, said that the accused were in the habit of hunting wild animals and selling their meat. This, if true, would junk any claim that they were trying to protect their crops.

There are multiple reasons for growing elephant-human conflict. In many cases, humans are guilty of wanton provocation. This is clear from a report, datelined May 18, 2019, by Birdie Witten in the Mirror, the United Kingdom, which was brought to the notice of this writer by Sonia Jabbar, who runs a successful elephant conservation programme in North Bengal. The report is about a mother elephant, which had given birth near the dry bed of a lake, trying to get her newborn baby to stand, while a crowd of villagers watched and took photographs. Increasingly indicating her irritation through movements, she finally charged at the crowd as the latter started throwing stones at her and killed a 27-year-old man. Ten other elephants appeared in the area shortly afterwards, causing panic.

This incident happened in West Bengal. Kerala is not the only State where elephants are maltreated. In the last couple of days, three elephants were apparently poisoned to death in Chhattisgrah. Such crimes are becoming increasingly frequent throughout the country because human encroachment into animal habitats is growing, thanks to a swelling population. It is not just new farms and human settlements but the entire range of projects — roads, rail tracks, power transmission lines, mines, industrial plants — undertaken in the name of a skewed concept of development catering to advertisement-driven compulsive consumption. Animals will perish and the environment ruined if the process continues unreformed. Finally, with their supportive linkages of life forms gone, humans will face extinction.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)